MIT Joins Boston-Area Alliance To Buy North Carolina Solar

Three Boston-area organizations – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston Medical Center (BMC), and Post Office Square Redevelopment Corp. (POS) – have formed an alliance to buy electricity from a large solar project being built by Virginia-based energy company Dominion.

According to the organizations, the 25-year power purchase agreement (PPA) between the institutions and Dominion will enable the construction of a roughly 650-acre, 60 MW solar facility on farmland in Currituck County, N.C. Featuring 255,000 panels, the Summit Farms solar project is expected to be completed and begin delivering power into the grid by the end of this year.

MIT has committed to buying 73% of the power generated by the new array, with BMC buying 26% and POS buying the remainder. MIT’s purchase of 44 MW is equivalent to 40% of the institute’s current electricity use and is among the largest publicly announced purchases of solar energy by any U.S. college or university. Meanwhile, the solar deal is expected to neutralize 100% of electricity consumption for both BMC, a 496-bed academic medical center in Boston’s South End, and POS, which manages an underground parking garage and a park in downtown Boston.

The PPA comes as MIT reaches the one-year anniversary of its Plan for Action on Climate Change. That plan included a pledge of a 32% reduction in the institute’s carbon emissions from 2014 levels, to be achieved by 2030.

“Today’s agreement not only enables us to address a substantial portion of MIT’s campus carbon emissions, but it also enables us to demonstrate the feasibility of large-scale renewable energy projects to other potential purchasers, developers, and financiers,” said Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, who is leading implementation of the Plan for Action on Climate Change. “We believe our experience can help catalyze similar investments in clean energy, which will be vital to achieving a zero-carbon global energy system within this century.”

Julie Newman, director of MIT’s Office of Sustainability, added that real-time performance data from the site will be made available to MIT researchers, along with access to some identical solar panels that will be installed on the MIT campus to compare their performance under local conditions.

BMC was already on target to reduce its emissions by at least 50% by 2018 through a $300 million clinical campus redesign that includes upgrades to heating, cooling, and ventilation systems, a new biodigester to compost food waste, and other improvements. The additional carbon footprint reduction achieved through this renewable energy agreement is expected to make BMC carbon-neutral by the end of 2018.

“Boston Medical Center is proud to join MIT and the Post Office Square Redevelopment Corp. in this historic renewable energy agreement,” commented Robert Biggio, vice president of facilities and support services at BMC. “This is the right thing to do for the quality of life and health of our patients and our planet.”

Although MIT, BMC and POS evaluated 41 potential renewable energy projects – some of which were much closer to the Boston area – the partners say this solar installation had a number of significant advantages: It uses a larger contiguous area than was available in the Northeast, and the local companies handling the design and installation of the solar panels have a proven track record of building and operating similar facilities, minimizing uncertainties about the facility’s cost and output.

In addition, the partners say the existing power grid in North Carolina has significantly higher greenhouse-gas emissions, as more of that region’s energy comes from coal-fired plants than in New England and, thus, more emissions will be displaced for a given amount of solar power than for a similar facility built in the Northeast.

A Better City, a Boston-based organization that counts MIT, BMC and POS as members, managed this solar partnership, and CustomerFirst Renewables, an advisory services firm, structured and negotiated the energy solution. According to MIT’s Newman, the agreement could set an example for other institutions and companies to follow.

“This is a model where we’re thinking of solutions that are beyond the scale of the capabilities of the individual partners, but that demonstrate positive global benefits,” she said. “By banding together, the partnership enables the parties to join in on a large-scale project that they couldn’t have done individually. Many thousands of organizations around the country that are too small to initiate their own power purchase agreements could potentially follow this cooperative model.”

The Boston-area partners say the on-site design and construction of Summit Farms will be handled by SunEnergy1 under contract to Dominion, and the power produced by the plant will be transmitted by PJM, the mid-Atlantic regional grid operator. Meanwhile, MIT, BMC and POS say they will receive the benefits of a predictable fixed price for electricity and the environmental benefits of the emissions mitigation, in the form of renewable energy certificates.

In a separate press release, Dominion says it acquired the development rights for the Summit Farms project from SunEnergy1 as part of Dominion’s long-term plan to bring online at least 500 MW of solar electric generating capacity in North Carolina and Virginia.

“We are pleased to partner with these three outstanding organizations to add more carbon-free generation to the electric grid,” said Paul D. Koonce, CEO of the Dominion Generation Group. “We will continue to seek similar opportunities helping large and small energy consumers alike reduce their carbon footprint.”

Photo is a stock image of a solar farm


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